This morning a colleague and good friend of mine sent me a link to an interview with Brian Eno in an email she had called ‘How Not to Interview’. She knew I’d like it because we’ve recently worked together on a project where between us we interviewed around 70 people. Many of these were Very Important People and frequently – particularly when we were conducting interviews on behalf of other colleagues – the interviews dealt with subjects on which we had only the most superficial prior knowledge. Also, because of the nature of the project, we’d not infrequently be conducting several of these interviews a day, in circumstances that Introduction to Oral History 101 would describe as less than ideal. Believe me, when it’s nine o’clock at night and you’re on your sixth interview and you’re in a crowded hotel lobby bar in Nairobi, you find yourself struggling through even the routine formalities of the paperwork and the equipment checks.
But looking back on these interviews and others I’ve done – probably around 200 in the course of my career now – I gained two important insights that I’ll share with you. The first is that no matter how good your equipment the sudden appearance of a brass band will almost certainly ruin your interview. The second is that its listening that makes good interviews. The interviews where I felt under-prepared frequently turned out to be the most interesting. This is because I was forced into a position of having to truly listen and build my questions around what the interviewee was telling me. Seems like an obvious point doesn’t it? But having heard, read, and transcribed a lot of interviews I can tell you that it usually doesn’t happen. This interview with Brian Eno is an excellent example of what I’m talking about and should be compulsory viewing on any Introduction to Oral History course.